Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Revolution Will Be Blogged

We interrupt this philosophical blogging to state that the smoking gun of the invasion of Iraq has finally been found, adding to the millions of reasons for people to come demonstrate against war in Washington next Saturday.

Why, after all, did President Bush send U.S. troops into the Iraq misadventure? We've all known it had to be something bad. But what?

Some people said it was a psychological flaw of some kind. He felt emasculated by Osama bin Laden and had to prove he was a man somehow. Putting a president on the couch, popular a pastime as it may have become since Richard Nixon, doesn't work. That fact of the matter is that most of us don't know Dubya well enough to psychologize him. Those who do aren't telling.

Other people put it in terms of a Greek tragedy: Bush the Younger avenging Bush the Elder against their nemesis, the evil Saddam Hussein. This doesn't hold water, especially since it's well known by now that George H. W. Bush with Dubya about Iraq; Bush I stopped at the border, where Bush II was imprudent enough to tread.

Of course, let's not forget that Dubya himself isn't making the task of guessing his intentions easy. W is fiendishly clever and he isn't afraid to look stupid to fool his adversaries.

To gauge the intentions of heads of state, one must look at who benefits by a given move and what are the effects and examine their cogency with the leader's goals.

Why did Nixon go to China? To buy his way out of Vietnam.

Why did Reagan begin his 1980 presidential election campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., the site of 1964 murders of three civil rights activists? To wink to the Southern racists whose votes he was courting.

Why has George W. Bush and his Republican Party, the historical standard-bearer of balanced budgets, run up the largest budget deficits ever? To destabilize, and if possible collapse, the financial foundation of all programs devoted to social and economic insurance for middle- and low-income Americans.

So now, fellow analysts, what looks like a plausible explanation for an invasion of a country not even Bush really believed posed a real threat?

Just before Christmas I began to get a glimmer of an answer from an article in Der Spiegel Online, Will Iraq's Oil Blessing Become a Curse? concerning a draft law that would allow foreign companies to keep 75 percent of all revenues extracted from Iraq over 10 years. "By negotiating deals while Iraq is unstable," wrote Joshua Gallu in Berlin, "companies could lock in a risk premium that may be much lower five or ten years from now."

Big Oil sounds a plausible reason. It meshes with Bush's background. It make sense in a world with the diminishing available reserves, of which Iraq has the fourth largest reserves in the world, 112 gigabarrels.

So here it is: Bush sent troops to Iraq to create the circumstances that would allow Western oil companies to lock in huge oil reserves at a bargain price. Bargain, that is, for oil CEOs and board members, who will no doubt give themselves megabonuses as they gouge the public -- and steadfastly block the way to alternative fuels.

Moreover, all the usual suspects are locked in on the deal. The International Monetary Fund is holding creditors at bay, only if Iraq approves this law.

The Iraqi unions oppose the law. The Kurdish regional authority not only opposes it, it's been signing its own agreements.

Maybe that's what the sectarian warfare is about? Not Allah, but oil ahhhs?

Bush wants desperately to change the topic now that 70 percent of Americans oppose his Iraq policy. But let's not let him. Especially now that we need not guess what this has all been about.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Monday Morning Angst or ...?

Few disappointments in life compare to waking up Monday morning with the prospect that the escape of the past two days from one's labor, much as one may love one's work, is over.

In Western societies, at least, since the 3rd century Christian sabbatarianism has given us one day off, the day known as the Day of the Sun in ancient Egyptian astrology. Clergy rebaptized it as the day of the son (of the deity), Sunday, a day of worship.

Saturday, the original Sabbath, was added as a day of rest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to trade unions rather than religiosity. Thus was born the weekend.

Note the shift from the sabbatical impulse to the weekend of recreation. One was about setting a time for Someone Else, the other is about setting aside time to re-create, or remake, oneself.

In the so-called Protestant work ethic the insistence is on work as the means to "salvation" (Arbeit Macht Frei, work shall make you free, proclaimed a slogan on the gates of several nazi concentration camps). In a more Dionysian and perhaps more humane perspective on human activity, we accept that we become tired from ordered work, particularly that which mostly benefits someone else, and need to replenish ourselves with joy.

Let's ask ourselves the defining question: Do we live to work or do we work to live?

(If I work hard, is it because it fulfills me in some way or is it for a joyless reason? Are the goods and services I get as the fruits of labor really sources of joy to me or are they what I think I am expected to have? Do I own them or do they own me?)

Remember: no matter how many lives you are counting on based on what clergy tell you, you have only one life in the here and now.

Make your time here count for something. Take as many steps as you can beyond the place at which you first gained awareness of yourself and the world.

Even if you expect to find the proverbial 72 virgins in the afterlife, what makes you think that the first time done 72 times in the great thereafter is any better than the first time done here, just once, in the back seat of a Dodge? Besides, who's to say that the 72 virgins won't be surly ruler-wielding Catholic nuns ? (Imagine Allah saying, "Ha, ha, fooled ya, Al Qaeda!")

Seriously, folks, remember to laugh. That's a cosmic order!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Others and Ourselves

In the 2001 film The Others, Nicole Kidman plays a woman who lives with her two light-sensitive children in a beautiful house on the isle of Jersey awaiting the return of her husband, a soldier away in the Second World War. The house seems strangely haunted until the viewer begins to see everything from the point of view of the haunters.

An inversion of a similar sort is needed to take the next step in this series of meditations toward an ethic. We have seen, in the last post, the conflict between how we see ourselves from within and how we are seen from the outside.

The problem with my self-perception is that I cannot see all of myself, even physically. I'm told that elephants, when shown a mirror begin to inspect themselves thoroughly to gain a view of parts they never are able to see otherwise.

The problem with mass thinking is best seen in context. Groups of adolescents, from male gangs to female cliques, tend to enforce among members a uniform style of clothes, speech patterns and behavior subject to the whim of the alpha male or female, precisely at that point of personal development when individual self-image is weakest and most malleable. The result is often antisocial, self-destructive behavior that ruins lives.

In the adult world we have the world of fashion, which tyrannizes how people, although mostly women heed it, must look and what they must wear.

We also have William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956), in which such individuals were collectively described as
"people only work for The Organization. The ones I am talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions."
They remind me of Catholic priests; which brings me to the third possibility, the therapist.

The problem with the therapist -- in past ages priests and shamans, oracles and seers -- is that they are not without their own agenda that may be quite distinct from our own goals. The priests and shamans were, like artisans and scribes, dependent on the king's bounty and pleasure, as they did not produce their own sustenance, nor exercise brawn to protect the realm.

The therapist today is freer but still vulnerable to pecuniary corruption -- it's very handy to draw that fee every week for years on end from patients supposedly never quite ready to fend for themselves. Therapists are also subject to the fashions of their profession and, on the whole, are society's ultimate organization men, wielding the power to lock people up. (Speaking of power, let's not forget Aristotle's thinking on power and potential.)

Nonetheless, in the ideal, the therapist is a trained and experienced observer. As a journalist, also a trained an experienced observer, I often hear people say they can get information themselves. Journalism isn't mere information retrieval, but sifting through what's misleading, erroneous or misleading, to arrive at some preliminary, first-draft of what might possibly may have happened.

Something similar might be said of the ideal therapist. This is someone whom we vest with the potential to help us discern who we really are and what we really want to do and be in our lives. The point is not, should not be, the therapist, but the therapeutic process.

Its essence was captured by an old joke: How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

At heart, it is not the therapist who lays out a picture of our selves, but rather we who pick up insights from the therapist's active listening and rejigger the picture we had. Who we are and who we are seen as, taken in this context, interact with each other. The therapist need not be a credentialed specialist. A good person will do, as will a good book.

All we really need is an active "mirror" that allows us to see ourselves as we are seen and that leaves us free to transform ourselves to what we would like to be or become. To develop a true image of ourselves, we need to interact with some one or some thing, an Other, who offers glimmers of what we appear to be.

In times past our forebears made of the Other a god, or at least a powerful intermediary, ceding independence largely because they saw themselves as powerless kites in the winds of Fate. Today, I think, things are different.

The Others may well be inside us, challenging us, showing us what we do not wish to see but need to, or it may be another, on the outside, summoned by the inner voice. As in the movie, it may turn out that we are the Others.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Alice and the Mirror

Just as I had polished off the notion of making one's own true images, convinced that I am a peace-loving wisdom seeker, an acquaintance declared my temperament fearsome and my responses oversensitive. Are we the way we see ourselves from the inside or the way others see us from the outside? Which image of ourselves is the true one, valid and overriding?

There seemed to be many answers.

My initial response is that only I know what I am thinking on the inside as I commit thoughts to words, in writing or speech, or as I commit my being to action. Hence, the image I form of myself from the inside is the True Self, it is who I really am.

A friend replies, to the contrary, that I don't really know what I am. My intentions are hidden from myself by genetic predispositions, the unconscious and plain self-delusion. The best judges of who I am are those who observe my behavior. If five people judge me from the outside to be X, even though I protest with interior self-knowledge that I am really Y, I am really X.

Another voice says: neither, the true self can only be found by a therapist. The source is, you guessed, a therapist (not mine; I have none, although some think I should). Let's replace "therapist" with someone whom we vest with the potential to help us discern who we really are and what we really want to do and be in our lives.

Three options. Three doors. Which is right?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Happy Birthday, Dr. King!

When my older son was three, in the dark night of Reaganomics, I took him to the 20th anniversary rally commemorating the 1963 March on Washington. On the fringes, a vendor was selling tapes of the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the years my son listened to them over and over again. My son's favorite was Dr. King's emphatic, gospel preacher's "If I had sneezed ..." litany, which we heard repeated in a child's voice at the dinner table often, as excerpted below.

And I want to thank God, once more,
for allowing me to be here with you.

Audience: Yes sir

You know, several years ago I was in New York City
autographing the first book that I had written.
And while sitting there autographing books,
a demented black woman came up.
The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?"
And I was looking down writing and I said, "Yes."

The next minute I felt something beating on my chest.
Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman.
I was rushed to Harlem Hospital.
It was a dark Saturday afternoon.
And that blade had gone through, and the X rays revealed
that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery.
And once that's punctured you're drowned in your own blood;
that's the end of you.

Yes sir

It came out in the New York Times the next morning
that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died.

Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation,
after my chest had been opened and the blade had been taken out,
to move around in the wheelchair in the hospital.
They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in,
and from all over the states and the world kind letters came in.
I read a few, but one of them I will never forget.
I had received one from the president and the vice president;
I've forgotten what those telegrams said.
I'd received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York,
but I've forgotten what that letter said.


But there was another letter

All right

that came from a little girl,
a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School.
And I looked at that letter and I'll never forget it. It said simply,

"Dear Dr. King:
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School."
She said, "While it should not matter,
I would like to mention that I'm a white girl.
I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering.
And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died.
And I'm simply writing you to say
that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."

Yes [applause]

And I want to say tonight,


I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn't sneeze.
Because if I had sneezed,

All right

I wouldn't have been around here in 1960,


when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters.
And I knew that as they were sitting in,
they were really standing up

Yes sir

for the best in the American dream
and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy,
which were dug deep by the founding fathers
in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

If I had sneezed,


I wouldn't have been around here in 1961,
when we decided to take a ride for freedom
and ended segregation in interstate travel.

All right

If I had sneezed,


I wouldn't have been around here in 1962,
when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up.
And whenever men and women straighten their backs up,
they are going somewhere,
because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed,


if I had sneezed,
I wouldn't have been here in 1963,

All right

when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama,
aroused the conscience of this nation
and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed,
I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August,
to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.


If I had sneezed,


I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama,
to see the great movement there.

If I had sneezed,
I wouldn't have been in Memphis to see a community rally
around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.


I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.

And they were telling me.


Now it doesn't matter now.

Go ahead

It really doesn't matter what happens now.

I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane
- there were six of us -
the pilot said over the public address system:
"We are sorry for the delay,
but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane.
And to be sure that all of the bags were checked,
and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane,
we had to check out everything carefully.
And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night."

And then I got into Memphis.
And some began to say the threats,
or talk about the threats that were out,


or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

Well, I don't know what will happen now;
We've got some difficult days ahead.


But it really doesn't matter with me now,
because I've been to the mountaintop.

Yeah [applause]

And I don't mind.

[applause continues]

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life
- longevity has its place.
But I'm not concerned about that now.
I just want to do God's will.


And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain.

Go ahead

And I've looked over,

Yes sir

and I've seen the Promised Land.

Go ahead

I may not get there with you.

Go ahead

But I want you to know tonight,


that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

[applause] Go ahead. Go ahead.

And so I'm happy tonight;
I'm not worried about anything;
I'm not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

-- Delivered 3 April 1968, Memphis, Tennessee.
This turned out to be Dr. King's last full-fledged speech.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Timely Poem


When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Make True Images

We have seen that loving ourselves is not an automatic free pass to indulgence and bacchanalia. Alcohol abuse can ruin the liver, wanton sex can kill, overeating can make us obese and diabetic, and so forth. Nor is self-love a door to solipsism; self-delusion is as dangerous as self-abuse.

Who is in the mirror? Is it an image of my father or mother? Is it a person older or younger, handsomer or uglier than the one in my dreams? Can I agree with myself which image is truly me?

Making true images of oneself is a task of a lifetime.

We can be proud only of the true selves we are, with commendable traits, as well as drawbacks. Not "proud to be [put nationality, local identity, race, sex here]," nor "embarrassed to [same categories]." Not what I was born but who I am.

Who am I? Am I a son, a father, a husband? Am I a professional, an employee, a business leader? Am I the guy sitting in the back of the bus reading a novel? Am I all of these? More?

Am I capable of revealing what I know about who I am without fear or concern for the opinion of others? To be who I am simply because that is who I am?

Have I come to believe the false images of myself that I have made to deceive others? If so, I am in trouble.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Interrupted Solitude

Prompted by e-mail list discussions concerning my last post, I have realized that, although the human condition is at heart solitary, we have the option, in a world of 6 billion inhabitants, to choose an interruption.

That is to say, although the links idealized by religion and popular sentimentality are a mirage, there are benefits to gaining access to human intercourse (yes, gutterminds, in that sense, too). In the world of individuals, as in that of nations, we sail in international waters, we journey in a moral jungle in which survival remains always a struggle.

After all, interrupted solitude is merely that.

Relationships, much like relations between the nations, are based on compacts if conflict is to be averted -- this includes those encounters that do not surpass exchanges as lacking in intimacy as one might have with one's mail carrier. There's a protocol, commercial agreements of coincidences, treaties, etc.

At heart we return to what's been said here, so long as we can exercise our sovereignty we are sovereign beings, different, solitary. We have the option to interrupt solitude and whenever we do we expose ourselves to the consequences.

The important thing is not to fall into the delusion that the abundance of people that may surround us at one point or another, due to the accident of large families, or because we belong to a union, or for whatever reason, constitutes an inexorably independent reality, a vectorial sum that exceeds the total of the individuals.

The society and laws that we accept, or have been forced to accept, are perishable. Community or society does not exist. It is a temporary mirage. Sure, it's the mirage of life, the brief period in which we acquire awareness, we squander it, then return to eternal sleep.

When one holds up these realities for all to see, the common response is a protest that is actually the fear of death. We need to have the valor to see things as they are to be who we are and, at a minimum, to enjoy the profligacy of life.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

We Are Alone

The world is not here for me; I am alone.

No one came to my bedside to bring tea, nor did I go to anyone else's, when dusk came upon the damned cold that is circulating in this city and that everyone has caught.

Saturday morning at 7 I have no one with whom to discuss the worry that wakes me up.

After a day of rambling by the library or the movies I find I have not exchanged a word with anyone.

Most people bore me, and I bore them. Increasingly, what interests them most are unappetizing details of their medical conditions. To be fair, what interests me most is my economic future.

Toting up my donations and volunteer work, it becomes crystal clear to me that the real motivation is to feel noble and good about myself.

We are alone. No one will look after us. Conversely, let's be frank, unless we are paid, in psychic or somatic currency, we will not look after anyone else.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Altruism or Egotism?

The question springs from an answer to an earlier log. To my correspondent's proposal that the very idea of ethics “requires in an essential way the bond with another,” I reply that regarding such bonds I remain agnostic.

Let me clarify that I am not proposing a philosophical egotism in the style of Ayn Rand -- nor much less a Milton-Friedmanesque political economy. Absolutely not.

The point of departure is myself merely because I am the unique constant to myself. The other, male and female, can always go off merrily skipping away in verdant pastures … I'm one that I have left.

The right to satisfy my needs, however, does not imply a justification of oppression of the he, she and all of you who are not me. It merely means a certain hierarchy of needs.

My correspondent does not stop with altruism, but instead raises the matter of self-awareness (or conscience) in philosophical terms. The questions prompt me to imagine a whole series of Descartes thinking in their attics in Paris, London, Florence, and deriving from such thought patterns of knowledge that are impossible to collate or to compare. Then there are the problems of error and the surprise, which arise from outside the self.

This strikes me as attempting to know too much. What I propose is much simpler: that the task of developing a scheme by which it is evident what I must do and what I must not needs to begin with a healthy respect towards myself. To love to myself passionately.

The gospel says it: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:39). But how shall I love my neighbor as myself if I do not love myself first?

Let's be clear about this: it's not an idea that began with or is unique to Jesus or Christianity. The Hebrew scripture already taught it (Lev. 19:18), as did Confucius five centuries before Jesus, Mohammed in its last speech, the Vedas in India, Gautama Buddha in his second truth, et cetera, et cetera.

The idea is a commonplace, almost an archetype.

The difference I propose lies in the place of precedence. Instead of denying myself in pursuit of heavens, salvations and nirvanas, I propose fulfilling myself first. Loving oneself enthusiastically, without thinking about another one, dividing oneself, holding back, until my self overflows with love and from this a love of others is born.